Most of the billions of dollars of higher education investments in President Biden’s Build Back Better Act will go toward institutions and programs that already receive some sort of federal support. But if the legislation passes as it is currently written, the federal government will invest in a particular group of students that it hasn’t supported before—those who are undocumented.
The current text of Democrats’ $1.75 trillion social spending bill includes a provision that would expand eligibility for federal student aid to students with Temporary Protected Status or who are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that provides protection against deportation to immigrants often known as Dreamers who were brought to the United States without documentation as children. About 427,000 undocumented students are in higher education, but none of them are able to finance their education using federal financial aid, even though most would be eligible based on income.
Many undocumented students work long hours or multiple jobs to pay for college and support their families at the same time. Oftentimes, it isn’t the academics that hinders undocumented students’ success in higher education—it’s the pressure of juggling all their financial responsibilities, said Candy Marshall, president of TheDream.US, an organization that provides financial support to Dreamers who want to attend college.
Tatiana Faria, an undocumented student, first enrolled at Miami Dade College in 2006 at the age of 18 but had to drop out shortly after because her parents were deported. Now 33 years old, she was only able to re-enroll at Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., this fall because she received assistance from TheDream.US. Meanwhile, it took her sister a decade to finish her bachelor’s degree in social work because she was working an under-the-table job to support herself and Faria and to pay for college classes without federal financial aid.
“If federal aid was accessible, it would be such a big difference in how the undocumented community is often unable to be in school for long periods of time,” Faria said. “When I was ready to go back to school, I couldn’t because I didn’t have access to federal aid. I could’ve been in school in 2014 or 2015.”
Under the Build Back Better Act, thousands of undocumented students would not only have access to Pell Grants—federal aid for low- and moderate-income students that doesn’t have to be repaid—but they would also be able to receive federal loans, which tend to have better terms than private loans, and participate in Federal Work-Study programs on their campuses.
“The ability to get a Pell Grant, federal loans and Federal Work-Study would be huge for students with DACA,” Marshall said. “All three of those can be very important components to help undocumented students with DACA pay for their college education.”
This provision’s inclusion in the bill has been years in the making, with organizations like TheDream.US, UnidosUS and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration advocating for accessible higher education benefits for undocumented students. It’s been a key priority for the members of the Presidents’ Alliance, a coalition of over 500 presidents and chancellors of public and private institutions, since the alliance was founded in 2017, according to Miriam Feldblum, who is co-founder and executive director.
“Financial aid is what enables students to enroll in higher education, to be retained in higher education and to graduate,” Feldblum said. “It’s fundamental to the work.”
For these organizations, their advocacy for expanding educational access has primarily been focused on educating and informing members of Congress, their staffs and policy makers at the Department of Education. The facts speak for themselves, they say.
Having funded 7,500 students, TheDream.US has plenty of data on outcomes for undocumented students with financial support that they like to share with lawmakers, said Marshall. For example, their scholars have a 94 percent first-year persistence rate, an 86 percent persistence rate over all and a six-year graduation rate of 79 percent—all of which meet or exceed the national benchmarks for all four-year college students.
“Some of that data is so astounding and really convincing to people,” Marshall said.
In Congress, Representatives Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, and Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas, have often been leaders on this issue.
“For several years, I’ve worked hard on the House Education and Labor Committee to expand resources for students to achieve higher education, no matter their family income or immigration status,” Castro said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed. “Dreamers, people who came to the United States at a young age, are vital members of American society, contributing as essential workers during this pandemic and should have the opportunity to pursue their full potential.”
Grijalva said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed that allowing undocumented students to access federal aid through the Build Back Better Act would help aid in the economy’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we expand eligibility of federal student aid, we give more opportunities for students to earn good-paying jobs and continue to contribute to this country’s economy,” Grijalva said.
UnidosUS regularly discusses how the entire country would benefit by allowing undocumented students to have access to federal aid. Without it, many are inhibited from getting an education and fully contributing their skills and talents, said Roxanne Garza, a senior education policy adviser at UnidosUS. And the talent pool is only growing—about 98,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year.
“They’re here to stay,” Garza said. “Barring their access to federal student aid hinders the nation’s ability to compete in a competitive global market. We’d only be shooting ourselves in the foot by not helping these students out.”
Of course, the provision has plenty of opposition—though its inclusion in a budget reconciliation bill means that it could pass without broad bipartisan support. House Education and Labor Committee ranking Republican Virginia Foxx, from North Carolina, said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed that the Biden administration “is trying to divert the tax dollars of hardworking Americans to fund the tuition of non-citizens.”
“This provision is a slap in the face to … hardworking taxpayers who are struggling to put their own kids through college,” Foxx said. “Yet again, President Biden is hanging a welcome sign on our southern border, straining our social safety net programs and bleeding the American people dry to pay for it.”
Still, while expanded federal aid to DACA recipients and TPS holders would be a welcomed change by advocates, it wouldn’t help the majority of current and prospective undocumented students. The Build Back Better provision is important, but it isn’t enough, said Feldblum.
A Limited Impact
That’s because of the 427,000 undocumented students in higher education, only 42 percent—or 181,000 students—are DACA recipients or DACA eligible. And those who are eligible but not recipients wouldn’t be able to benefit any time soon—the Biden administration isn’t allowed to approve any of the nearly 83,000 pending new applications for the program, after a federal judge ruled it illegal in July.
“An increasing number of undocumented students are coming to campuses who are not eligible for DACA,” Feldblum said. “While this is really important, it’s just a down payment. We still need legislation that covers all undocumented students and provides extension of eligibility to all those who only know the U.S. as their home.”
The Biden administration is working to “preserve and fortify” DACA by codifying the program into regulation, given that it was partly found unlawful because it was promulgated without notice-and-comment rule making. But the rule that the Department of Homeland Security has proposed doesn’t change a critical part of the program—that applicants have to have arrived in the U.S. before 2007.
“The idea was you had to be in the country for five years, and [DACA] was put into place in 2012,” Marshall said. “This year, for a graduating high school student to meet that criteria, they would’ve had to come before they were 4 years old. Even if they’re successful in this new rule-making process, if they don’t change that date, it will help some, but once again, there will be many that will be left behind.”
The Presidents’ Alliance is supportive of a multipronged approach, where DACA recipients and TPS holders can gain access to federal financial aid, but other immigration provisions—such as a pathway to citizenship for those who are undocumented—are eventually passed, too. Interim steps are crucial, but their coalition plans to continue pushing for more, said Feldblum.
Faria said that Dreamers want a permanent change that would make higher education more accessible to them—not a solution that’s temporary or conditional, or that only puts a Band-Aid on the situation.
“It would be a beautiful gift to have Dreamers have that access to higher education where they’re on an equal playing field as everyone else, because they are future scientists, they are future accountants and there’s so much potential,” Faria said.